The governors of five Western prairie states have not agreed to participate in a new farm bill program intended to protect virgin prairie—enabling landowners in their states to continue collecting some federal subsidies after plowing up prairie lands.

The voluntary "sodsaver" program—included in the 2008 farm bill—would block federal crop insurance or disaster payments for farmers who plow under native prairie. The restrictions would apply only to designated priority areas in the prairie pothole region of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa—and only if the governors in those states opted to participate.

As of this week, no governors have signed up for the program, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department's Risk Management Agency said yesterday. The agency set a target date of Feb. 15, 2009, for signing up, though governors could still choose to participate later. USDA officials said they are still accepting public comment on the proposal.

Hunting, wildlife and conservation groups had pressed lawmakers to include protections for native prairie in the farm bill and to repeal federal incentives for landowners to break up native prairie. The prairie pothole region is a migratory corridor and a haven for rare plants. The seasonally flooded wetlands provide habitat for wildlife and pollution filters for stormwater.

Protections for native prairie had wide support from advocacy groups, as well as the Bush administration.

The House and Senate farm bills included mandatory protections, but when lawmakers worked to reconcile those two bills they changed the sodsaver program. A scaled-down, optional version emerged in the final version of the farm bill.

At the time, wildlife groups said the optional program would be toothless. Nine months later, they say their predictions are playing out.

"The vital sodsaver provision, which could potentially save millions of acres of ecologically fragile prairie lands from conversion to cropland, may never be implemented," said Gina DeFerrari, a senior policy adviser for the World Wildlife Fund's Northern Great Plains Program.

The original sodsaver language was intended to address what conservation advocates say is a backward system in current farm policy. Previous farm bills have offered landowners conservation payments to conserve grasslands but have also given crop insurance and crop subsidies to encourage plowing them up.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report last year calling federal subsidies an "important factor" in encouraging the conversion of millions of acres of grasslands to row crops. The United States lost almost 25 million acres of privately owned grasslands between 1982 and 2003, according to GAO.

Wildlife and conservation groups are asking the Obama administration to consider regulatory action that would block federal subsidies for landowners who plow up native prairie across the United States. They say a nationwide, mandatory program is the only way to enact the provision.

"We continue to encourage the governors to opt in," said DeFerrari. "But it's abundantly clear that if the goal of curtailing federal subsidies that are fueling the loss of native grassland is to be realized, the program simply must be made mandatory."

The opt-in program created a quandary for governors, who faced potential political backlash from landowners in the areas affected.

"It was made such a discriminatory provision, so the governors have to decide between farmers in one part of their state and another," said Julie Sibbing, who studies agriculture policy for the National Wildlife Federation. "We need a level playing field and a strong mandatory program."

Besides their desire to protect the area for plants and wildlife, groups say the current system wastes federal dollars. The fragile prairie potholes are not ideal farmland by nature, they say.

"Bringing these marginal croplands into production is wasteful and damaging to important natural resources," said Scott Stephens, director of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited. "These areas are prone to disasters like droughts, and allowing crop subsidies on broken prairie creates a burden on taxpayers."

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500